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Bygone Beliefs Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways Of Thought H. Stanley Redgrove

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Bygone Beliefs Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways Of Thought

by H. Stanley Redgrove

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IN the earliest days of his upward evolution man was satisfied with a very crude explanation of natural phenomena—that to which the name "animism" has been given. In this stage of mental development all the various forces of Nature are personified: the rushing torrent, the devastating fire, the wind rustling the forest leaves—in the mind of the animistic savage all these are personalities, spirits, like himself, but animated by motives more or less antagonistic to him.

I suppose that no possible exception could be taken to the statement that modern science renders animism impossible. But let us inquire in exactly what sense this is true. It is not true that science robs natural phenomena of their spiritual significance. The mistake is often made of supposing that science explains, or endeavours to explain, phenomena. But that is the business of philosophy. The task science attempts is the simpler one of the correlation of natural phenomena, and in this effort leaves the ultimate problems of metaphysics untouched. A universe, however, whose phenomena are not only capable of some degree of correlation, but present the extraordinary degree of harmony and unity which science makes manifest in Nature, cannot be, as in animism, the product of a vast number of inco-ordinated and antagonistic wills, but must either be the product of one Will, or not the product of will at all.

The latter alternative means that the Cosmos is inexplicable, which not only man's growing experience, but the fact that man and the universe form essentially a unity, forbid us to believe. The term "anthropomorphic" is too easily applied to philosophical systems, as if it constituted a criticism of their validity. For if it be true, as all must admit, that the unknown can only be explained in terms of the known, then the universe must either be explained in terms of man—i.e. in terms of will or desire—or remain incomprehensible. That is to say, a philosophy must either be anthropomorphic, or no philosophy at all.

Thus a metaphysical scrutiny of the results of modern science leads us to a belief in God. But man felt the need of unity, and crude animism, though a step in the right direction, failed to satisfy his thought, long before the days of modern science. The spirits of animism, however, were not discarded, but were modified, co-ordinated, and worked into a system as servants of the Most High. Polytheism may mark a stage in this process; or, perhaps, it was a result of mental degeneracy.

What I may term systematised as distinguished from crude animism persisted throughout the Middle Ages. The work of systematisation had already been accomplished, to a large extent, by the Neo-Platonists and whoever were responsible for the Kabala. It is true that these main sources of magical or animistic philosophy remained hidden during the greater part of the Middle Ages; but at about their close the youthful and enthusiastic CORNELIUS AGRIPPA (1486-1535)(1) slaked his thirst thereat and produced his own attempt at the systematisation of magical belief in the famous Three Books of Occult Philosophy. But the waters of magical philosophy reached the mediaeval mind through various devious channels, traditional on the one hand and literary on the other. And of the latter, the works of pseudo-DIONYSIUS,(2) whose immense influence upon mediaeval thought has sometimes been neglected, must certainly be noted.

(1) The story of his life has been admirably told by HENRY MORLEY (2 vols., 1856).

(2) These writings were first heard of in the early part of the sixth century, and were probably the work of a Syrian monk of that date, who fathered them on to DIONYSIUS the Areopagite as a pious fraud. See Dean INGE'S Christian Mysticism (1899), pp. 104—122, and VAUGHAN'S Hours with the Mystics (7th ed., 1895), vol. i. pp. 111-124. The books have been translated into English by the Rev. JOHN PARKER (2 vols.1897-1899), who believes in the genuineness of their alleged authorship.

The most obvious example of a mediaeval animistic belief is that in "elementals"—the spirits which personify the primordial forces of Nature, and are symbolised by the four elements, immanent in which they were supposed to exist, and through which they were held to manifest their powers. And astrology, it must be remembered, is essentially a systematised animism. The stars, to the ancients, were not material bodies like the earth, but spiritual beings. PLATO (427-347 B.C.) speaks of them as "gods". Mediaeval thought did not regard them in quite this way. But for those who believed in astrology, and few, I think, did not, the stars were still symbols of spiritual forces operative on man. Evidences of the wide extent of astrological belief in those days are abundant, many instances of which we shall doubtless encounter in our excursions.

It has been said that the theological and philosophical atmosphere of the Middle Ages was "scholastic," not mystical. No doubt "mysticism," as a mode of life aiming at the realisation of the presence of God, is as distinct from scholasticism as empiricism is from rationalism, or "tough-minded" philosophy (to use JAMES' happy phrase) is from "tender-minded". But no philosophy can be absolutely and purely deductive. It must start from certain empirically determined facts. A man might be an extreme empiricist in religion (i.e. a mystic), and yet might attempt to deduce all other forms of knowledge from the results of his religious experiences, never caring to gather experience in any other realm. Hence the breach between mysticism and scholasticism is not really so wide as may appear at first sight. Indeed, scholasticism officially recognised three branches of theology, of which the MYSTICAL was one. I think that mysticism and scholasticism both had a profound influence on the mediaeval mind, sometimes acting as opposing forces, sometimes operating harmoniously with one another. As Professor WINDELBAND puts it: "We no longer onesidedly characterise the philosophy of the middle ages as scholasticism, but rather place mysticism beside it as of equal rank, and even as being the more fruitful and promising movement."(1)

(1) Professor WILHELM WINDELBAND, Ph.D.: "Present-Day Mysticism," The Quest, vol. iv. (1913), P. 205.

Alchemy, with its four Aristotelian or scholastic elements and its three mystical principles—sulphur, mercury, salt,—must be cited as the outstanding product of the combined influence of mysticism and scholasticism: of mysticism, which postulated the unity of the Cosmos, and hence taught that everything natural is the expressive image and type of some supernatural reality; of scholasticism, which taught men to rely upon deduction and to restrict experimentation to the smallest possible limits.

The mind naturally proceeds from the known, or from what is supposed to be known, to the unknown. Indeed, as I have already indicated, it must so proceed if truth is to be gained. Now what did the men of the Middle Ages regard as falling into the category of the known? Why, surely, the truths of revealed religion, whether accepted upon authority or upon the evidence of their own experience. The realm of spiritual and moral reality: there, they felt, they were on firm ground. Nature was a realm unknown; but they had analogy to guide, or, rather, misguide them. Nevertheless if, as we know, it misguided, this was not, I think, because the mystical doctrine of the correspondence between the spiritual and the natural is unsound, but because these ancient seekers into Nature's secrets knew so little, and so frequently misapplied what they did know. So alchemical philosophy arose and became systematised, with its wonderful endeavour to perfect the base metals by the Philosopher's Stone—the concentrated Essence of Nature,—as man's soul is perfected through the life-giving power of JESUS CHRIST.

I want, in conclusion to these brief introductory remarks, to say a few words concerning phallicism in connection with my topic. For some "tender-minded"(1) and, to my thought, obscure, reason the subject is tabooed. Even the British Museum does not include works on phallicism in its catalogue, and special permission has to be obtained to consult them. Yet the subject is of vast importance as concerns the origin and development of religion and philosophy, and the extent of phallic worship may be gathered from the widespread occurrence of obelisks and similar objects amongst ancient relics. Our own maypole dances may be instanced as one survival of the ancient worship of the male generative principle.

(1) I here use the term with the extended meaning Mr H. G. WELLS has given to it. See The New Machiavelli.

What could be more easy to understand than that, when man first questioned as to the creation of the earth, he should suppose it to have been generated by some process analogous to that which he saw held in the case of man? How else could he account for its origin, if knowledge must proceed from the known to the unknown? No one questions at all that the worship of the human generative organs as symbols of the dual generative principle of Nature degenerated into orgies of the most frightful character, but the view of Nature which thus degenerated is not, I think, an altogether unsound one, and very interesting remnants of it are to be found in mediaeval philosophy.

These remnants are very marked in alchemy. The metals, as I have suggested, are there regarded as types of man; hence they are produced from seed, through the combination of male and female principles—mercury and sulphur, which on the spiritual plane are intelligence and love. The same is true of that Stone which is perfect Man. As BERNARD of TREVISAN (1406-1490) wrote in the fifteenth century: "This Stone then is compounded of a Body and Spirit, or of a volatile and fixed Substance, and that is therefore done, because nothing in the World can be generated and brought to light without these two Substances, to wit, a Male and Female: From whence it appeareth, that although these two Substances are not of one and the same species, yet one Stone doth thence arise, and although they appear and are said to be two Substances, yet in truth it is but one, to wit, Argent-vive."(1) No doubt this sounds fantastic; but with all their seeming intellectual follies these old thinkers were no fools. The fact of sex is the most fundamental fact of the universe, and is a spiritual and physical as well as a physiological fact. I shall deal with the subject as concerns the speculations of the alchemists in some detail in a later excursion.

(1) BERNARD, Earl of TREVISAN: A Treatise of the Philosopher's Stone, 1683. (See Collectanea Chymica: A Collection of Ten Several Treatises in Chemistry, 1684, p. 91.)

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